In "The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear" (Georgia, 2012), the film opens with a series of people being interviewed while standing in front of a faded wall, paint peeling and watermarked. Each is responding to a casting call from director Tinatin Gurchiani, who announced she was seeking young people who believe their lives are interesting for film. As a result of these interviews, and some additional footage as some are tracked as they go through their day-to-day lives, a picture is painted of a country in tough economic times where people dream of better futures but face the bitterness of the present and the past.
The first young man interviewed says his biggest dream is his kid's future, but when pressed he admits to a longing to be in films, and likes Van Damme a lot. When asked if he can cry or laugh on cue, he responds that he recognizes sad people. He is shy and unassuming, and it is hard to imagine that this latter dream will ever be realized. The foundation is laid for other stories of obvious sorrows and tamped down hopes.
Next in front of the camera is 13-year-old Ramin, another Georgian who wants to act. When asked about what he does daily, he responds, "Just working and stuff." Work consists of cutting and gathering corn stalks, digging up potatoes, chopping wood, or taking care of cattle. His favorite fairy tale is Little Red Riding Hood. Why? Because she outsmarts the wolf. Later, the camera follows Ramin as he prays hurriedly, then dresses his father, sprays him with perfume, and takes him to a transport van so his father can have an operation. Cutting back to his home, we see Ramin singing a folk tune ("I don't want to see Death"), his sister sitting passively nearby, and his mother watching as he next dials up the hospital to see how his father is. There is then a slow pan of the hospital and other buildings in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, shot through mist and fog, with colors muted. There is a ragged beauty in this old and run-down region.
Other lives focused on include a woman getting married, a man who earns his living "in a bad way" (online video poker, after losing his regular job), a governor who tries to provides services to small village of elderly residents, and a woman who quit the life she had (which was fun "and many other things") when she learned she was 6 months pregnant. She feels strong now, as a mother, and believes all her problems of her past were to prove that she could be independent.
A 56-year-old man appears. When told by the director this is a documentary about young people, he suggests he could be in a supporting role. "I dreamt of being part of a film since I was a child," he says with some melancholy. He talks of his sickly childhood, his love lost, and his responsibilities to his aging and ill mother. He still has dreams of achieving "something" someday.
These raw feelings have an undercurrent of hopelessness. They are crystalized in the response of one sad and dark-eyed woman, who responds to one of the director's question. The question is the basis for the film title - what would you do if there was a machine that could make everything disappear? "I would disappear myself," she says.
Is this, in fact, the overall theme? When the interviewed young man at the end opines that comedy is created only to ensure that one doesn't go mad by all the surrounding tragedy, is that the point? Or are the moments of joy ... at the wedding, at the puppet show, while dancing, when imagining the fairy tales or visions of a better life ... nuggets of hope that dispel sadness for a while and make the lives of these people worthwhile?
"The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear" is stark and honest, and shows people who hope amidst surroundings that chip away at that hope. Yes, some seem destined to gloom. But others imagine good jobs, fathers who come home from hospitals, wives who will love them, good health.
These pieces of different lives form a fractured puzzle depicting life in a country where modern times and traditions meld together. Poverty and the chance for better incomes co-exist. And for some, the future is better. As the film closes, we see a town square where people are going about their business in the city, then shots of decrepit buildings, factories, farmlands, and villages. The words of Gotcha to a former girlfriend of his incarcerated brother come to mind: "Don't let him lose faith in the future. That's the only thing I ask of you." Things seem bleak, but tomorrow awaits.
This film won the Best Director award in the Documentary category at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It is a testament to the value of the documentary style of filmmaking: it places the viewer dead center in this impoverished town in a country that is still shedding its Soviet past and coming to terms with possibilities of a better future.
"The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear" screens over this next weekend at the Whitsell Auditorium. Tickets ranges from $6 for Friends of the Film Center to $9 and can be purchased on the website of the Northwest Film Center or at the box office a half hour before the films. Screening times are as follows: Friday, Sept, 6 at 7 pm, Saturday, Sept. 7 at 7 pm, and Sunday, Sept. 8 at 7 pm. The Whitsell is in the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Avenue in downtown Portland.